Study: Nighttime Teen Deaths Up, Cellphone Distraction To Blame

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Texting while driving, by Flickr user ericathompson

Texting while driving, by Flickr user ericathompson

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Thinking about setting some ground rules on when a new teen driver can or can't take out the car? Ruling out most of the nighttime hours might be a good start.

If you're a parent, it's probably not for the reasons you might think of—like beer, testonerone-fueled horseplay, and more beer.

A new analysis from the Texas Transportation Institute, examining ten years of highway fatalities, from 1999 through 2008, and finds that for teens, the chances of a fatality when driving after dark are more likely than those alone of drinking, speeding, or not wearing a seatbelt.

The study covered a period in which overall traffic deaths declined, thanks largely to improvements in automotive and highway safety. Yet nighttime deaths didn't drop; they actually rose 7.5 percent for those aged 20-69 and 10.2 percent for those 16-19—a significant increase given all the other safety improvements we've made in the past decade.

All the safety improvements, that is, except for the missing link that might help explain that increase in deaths: those distracting hand-held devices we all carry that became so common during the period of the study.

The study's authors pointed to the combination of cellphone-related distraction and nighttime visibility as particularly deadly. “Being on a cell phone behind the wheel impairs our driving ability,” said Russel Henk, a senior research engineer at TTI. “When you add the nighttime danger, you create the perfect storm, and that storm is much more severe for young drivers, largely because of their lack of driving experience.”

While alcohol involvement increased for those 20 and older, it decreased slightly for teens.

Younger drivers do have better night vision and are more likely to spot hazards in the dark ahead, but there are clearly other distraction-related reasons for the spike; teens are also probably more likely to be holding one of those distracting devices while behind the wheel.

The study cited cellphone use—including its rapid technological advancement and increased affordability—as "the most notable new driving risk factor for contemporary teens."

With three teens in a vehicle, the chances of a crash are six times what they would be with only the driver aboard, a TTI researcher told the Washington Post.

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